I was chatting with a colleague from our salad days in the newspaper racket.
“Hey, you went to Harvard, didn’t you?” he said, having been there on a Neiman fellowship.
Harvard is so surreal for me I had to think. Yes, I was in the same 1977 undergraduate class as Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. I had recently unearthed the long-missing diploma.
“Yeah, I did.”
“Why don’t you write a book about Harvard? Everyone’s interested in Harvard.”
The title Harvard Hates America was taken. But there was still Why I Hate Harvard.
I get a pass for attending Harvard because my intentions, if not pure, were romantic—to continue chasing a boy I’d chased for years, a legacy kid who wanted nothing but Harvard. He was wait-listed, and I went hoping he would show up soon (he didn’t).
He’d probably been in that pool with the other smarty-pants boys at our high school, betting who would gain entrance to the H-hole. Silly boys — they wanted that evil place so badly, and all I wanted there was to make love.
These days, I have just one friend, James Galbraith, from the class of ’74, son of economist Kenneth Galbraith, whose attitude may be as bad as mine. Jamie told me that when the Harvard alumni magazine arrives at his house, he flips straight to the obits.
What did Harvard do to me? It broke my heart. I saw it engineer a crop of emotionally disconnected geniuses, my classmates, male and female, too many of whom wound up not only tolerating but leading the decades-long economic war on the American people—the war at home, our Vietnam. Verily, I expected more of Harvard.
The Harvard College class of 1977, H-R ’77 for short, was originally about 400 females and 1,200 males then still interviewed separately by Harvard College for the boys and the now-deceased Radcliffe College for the girls. I was unprepared for my interview and inexplicably found myself ranting about the bad things corporations sometimes do. Leaving the admissions office, I felt foolish for being so negative and sure I’d never get in.
Meanwhile over at the Harvard admissions office, it was agreed that H-R ’77 should have no more long-haired mustachioed troublemakers.
So they took the boys who were brilliant but, deep down, conventional. Boys who already loved Nietzsche but only read the parts about power. Boys who liked girls’ bodies well enough but not necessarily girls themselves. Boys who could be ruthless.
At the last reunion, the 35th in 2012, I saw Harvard undergrads who looked much different from my classmates. I couldn’t help but stare at the gorgeous Harvard senior women with their pricey hair, designer frocks and tickets to top law schools. But there were also seriously overweight and disabled undergraduates, of whom it seems there were so few in H-R ’77 that I can’t remember one. This was good and less “look-ist.”
Had Harvard become politically correct in this narrow aspect while continuing to co-opt them and conduct the war at home? After all, Harvard’s economics department chair is the conservative U.S. presidential adviser N. Gregory Mankiw, who directs the same hugely popular intro economics course I fled after first semester freshman year, confused and repulsed by the gimme-gimme-I’m-so-entitled vibe in Memorial Hall’s Sanders Theatre.
At the reunion, classmates again heard the results of a longitudinal survey study of H-R ’77. Listening to Dr. Jason Weeden’s jovial, microphone’d narration in a large, over-air-conditioned Harvard Law School auditorium, it became apparent that 500 classmates had coughed up a treasure trove of high-class demographic information.
When Dr. Weeden announced 80 percent of survey respondents identified as Democrats, laughter and actual clapping arose from the seats below.
I was surprised. Then came the shocker. I thought I heard Dr. Weeden announce a similar percentage of all respondents, around 80 percent, supported raising eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare.
I can’t find that second part now in the report posted online, so maybe I’m misremembering. But it is of considerable interest to me that the report online emphasizes that raising these program eligibility ages, plus concern about the federal budget deficit, are the only federal government policy beliefs shared by both H-R ’77 Republicans and Democrats.
The survey focused a lot on the deficit—what socialists like me call the top sham excuse for cutting social welfare programs, which raising eligibility ages effectively does. Why would my classmates, so many multimillionaires among us, support those higher ages?
Ah, fair Harvard. To revise an old Harvard joke: You can always tell Harvard graduates, but you can’t tell them much.
There’s always a Saturday night dance at Harvard reunions. At H-R ’77 Saturday night dances, every five years they play too much fucking disco, and I have to wonder whether it’s reunion committee members who despise dancers or the local hired deejays displaying their animus toward Harvard that accounts for all this disco. Still, there’s enough Michael Jackson to keep us going.
The 20th dance was at Winthrop House. The evening was underway when I saw two women and a man, not much older than us, standing in the shadows. They looked like alums and were wearing T-shirts with big, red stenciled fists on them. They just stood there—protesting, rebuking, reminding us as we gyrated nearby in our party clothes.
It was theater, old school, in high-windowed Winthrop House, the kind of stuff I like to imagine my Harvard elders did back in the day and commanding appreciation from this card-carrying member of the Freshman Acting Seminar. I smiled and said not a word about them to anyone, including the hunky classmate with whom I was enjoying a reunion flirtation. I asked about him at the last reunion and was told he was happy and keeping his job.
Jane Birnbaum has been a newspaper columnist, business reporter and union activist. Today, she resides in the DMV (District-Maryland-Virginia), where she is the original owner of a 1974 Pioneer turntable.